By Marcia M. Meis, Director, Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts
It is difficult to comprehend the lack of humanity we see every day. The shocking number of mass shootings including most recently in Buffalo and Texas. The daily gun violence that plagues so many cities nationally. The war and devastation in Ukraine and other parts of the world. The political and cultural divides that prompt so much hatred and harm. Among these tragedies, two years ago on this day - May 25, 2020 - George Floyd lay handcuffed with his neck pinned to the ground by a Minneapolis law enforcement officer as onlookers pleaded in vain for Mr. Floyd’s life.
The disasters and disruptions pile oppressively on top of the challenges of an unrelenting pandemic. To avoid feelings of hopelessness, I think about the critical role of the courts during times of such upheaval. The courts, after all, are responsible for maintaining the rule of law, and it is the rule of law that gives our systems the resilience necessary to overcome these enormous societal problems. As such, I remain optimistic because the Illinois Supreme Court has demonstrated core leadership values of fairness and impartiality in the administration of justice, accessibility, and treatment of all with dignity and respect throughout times of great transition and uncertainty. The Court’s commitment to equal justice under the law is but one example.
As the events in the Spring and Summer of 2020 unfolded, the Court quickly issued a statement proclaiming that “Racism exists, whether it be actualized as individual racism, institutional racism or structural racism, and it undermines our democracy, the fair and equitable administration of justice, and severely diminishes individual constitutional protections and safeguards of full citizenship with the attendant rights and benefits sacred to all.”
In support of its commitment to equal justice, the Court created its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer position, one of only a few such positions within the state courts at the time, thereby setting the expectation that all Illinois courts would make these issues a priority.
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Deanie Brown has since collaborated with local, state, and national justice stakeholders to enhance court access and accountability, ensure inclusive and culturally competent professional settings, and promote effective community and court user engagement throughout the judicial branch and the bar. Ms. Brown has enhanced DEI and racial justice education for judges and court personnel; supported diversity hiring and recruitment strategies for the state courts; initiated outreach to law schools to engage potential pipeline programs fostering diversity of the bench and bar; presented culturally responsive workplace programs; and advised the Court on DEI-related strategies, including data collection and analysis.
During its May 2022 Term, the Court approved the CDIO plan to pursue quantitative and qualitative research on several fronts, including soliciting input from judges, lawyers, and other court actors in the child welfare and juvenile justice system to address race-based disproportionality in involvement and outcomes. The CDIO also sought and received the Court’s approval to facilitate a study from the perspective of AOIC professionals to assess the DEI climate throughout the AOIC, noting that, to support the Court’s leadership effectively, we must first assess and address opportunities from within. More to come on these initiatives.
On a final and important note, we prepare to celebrate in July the installment and investiture of Justice Lisa Holder White – the first woman of color to join the Illinois Supreme Court. This historic appointment is, indeed, another reason to be optimistic.
I hope everyone has a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend.